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Locals grow crops in protected Kendari forest KENDARI - "Don't just blame us for stripping the forest -- first take a look at what local people have done to conserve it," said Haji Naim, 58, one of a group of farmers standing at the foot of the hilly Murhum Forest Park in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi. Along with the others, Haji is cultivating crops in the protected forest park -- part of what he calls an "agroforestry" system.

Haji Naim's plot is planted with short-term secondary crops of corn and bananas, as well as longer-term plants like cacao, pepper, cloves and candlenuts. The partially forested land is still fertile and the local community enjoys abundant harvests in the area. But instead of being cut down as part of the land-clearing, the trees around the crops are conserved.

But "agroforestry", as Naim calls it, is really just another name for compromise. Located on land 200 meters above sea level on the city outskirts of Kendari, Murhum Park is supposed to be a protected forest zone. However, around 600 families in the districts of Kendari, West Kendari and Mandonga have formed 18 farm collectives engaged in the Murhum agroforestry effort. After about seven years' cultivation, Naim now is reaping high yields. "I've gained my first cacao harvest in the past five months," he said.

Cacao and candlenuts can thrive on this land without extra fertilization. Naim is currently growing 70 candlenut and 300 cacao trees, with the latter producing up to 500 kilograms of cacao a season. This income alone is enough for him to support his family and send his children to school.

Along with the perennial crops, the farmer groups are also growing quick-yielding trees, including bananas and corn. "These plants also flourish," Naim said. However, the presence of wild boar in the protected area meant the crops had to be fenced of with bamboo, he said. The rise in fortunes of the farmers has led to increase in size of their traditional market in the Kemaraya subdistrict. Set on the banks of the Lahundape River, the once-local affair now serves buyers from other areas.

However, while the farmers are happy, Kendari city residents and the municipal authorities are not so keen on the agroforestry scheme, which is technically still illegal. They say the villagers' land use is depriving the forest of its water-retention function, meaning less water is flowing into the town's 12 catchment areas.

Poor regulation

Some also believe the settlement is causing increasing sediment to run off into Kendari Bay. A Haluoleo University study says the bay's mud content is already close to the threshold of two million cubic tons, meaning it will change into a plain in the next 10 years if nothing is done to stop the sedimentation.

In their defense, the farmers point to another study by the Coastal and Interior Community Development Institute (Lepmil), a non-governmental organization engaged in environmental advocacy in the Murhum area. It blames flawed city planning for the thousands of tons of rubbish dumped into city drains every day, a main cause of the sedimentation.

"The garbage dumped by thousands of citizens finally goes into the bay," the group's director, Rustanto, said. Despite its complaints about the farmers, Rustanto noted the municipality had done nothing to stop illegal mining activities in the area or enforce anti-river dumping laws.

Other companies operating in the coastal zone had also contributed to the bay's contamination, including fishery firms like PT Dharma Samudra, PT Djayanti Group and the local port, Rustanto said. In comparison, the mud produced by the Murhum farmers' settlement was far smaller in quantity. "In this case, we should avoid blaming each other. It is increasingly necessary for us to adopt alternative measures for integrated (waste) handling."

Rustanto believes the Murhum operation has increased people's awareness of the importance of safeguarding the forest against large-scale degradation. Agroforestry meant land management through sustainable crop planting, he said. Anas Nikoyan, the head of Haluoleo University's environmental research center, said the agroforestry-based planting pattern developed by Murhum farmers would only contribute to forest conservation as long as they remained committed to avoiding destructive activity.

"This is an alternative income generator for Murhum and is the best way to build community awareness about forest conservation," he said. However, Anas hoped that a legal framework would soon be introduced to regulate the management of the forest park. This would give local farmers' more certainty, he said.

Lepmil's 2003 data shows that the Murhum Forest Park has a plantation area of 440.67 hectares and a newly reclaimed area of 126.17 hectares. Fifty hectares had been settled with a farming population of 704. At the end of January, a team from the Department for International Development visited the forest park and talked with several local farmers.

Forestry expert Mike Harrison and British journalist Charlie Pye-Smith were impressed by the farmers' agroforestry management. "Their activities could become examples for other communities, within or outside forest zones," Harrison said.



Posted in Environment @ 22 February 2006 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink






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